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Southwest Gets On Board with Assigned Seating

This Way, Folks: Southwest put out a sign for a mold-breaking flight.
Scott Horsley, NPR
This Way, Folks: Southwest put out a sign for a mold-breaking flight.

Southwest Airlines flight 2444 flew from San Diego to Phoenix Monday. And for the first time in the airline's 35-year history, passengers were sitting in assigned seats. Southwest is experimenting with alternatives to its normal first-come, first-served seating policy.

The test comes at a time when a record number of airline seats are occupied.

The whole point of the experiment is to see if passengers with assigned seats can board an airplane as quickly as those racing for open seats. Boarding airplanes quickly is important for Southwest and its competitors, says airline economist David Swearinga.

"When the airplane is sitting on the ground, it's not making any money," Swearinga said. "And so the idea is to get it back into the air making some money."

The same push for speed has other airlines changing the way they board passengers. United now boards window seats first, then middle seats, and aisles last. Northwest boards all rows simultaneously. And America West uses a hybrid system called the "reverse pyramid."

All of the newer methods are said to be faster than the tradition of boarding from the back of the plane forward. America West spokesman Morgan Durrant says back-to-front boarding tended to cause traffic jams, with clusters of passengers who got in each others way.

"We've all seen this. You're boarding an airplane, and you're trying to get to your assigned seat. And there's someone that's fiddling with putting their overhead baggage into an overhead compartment -- so you've got to wait."

Southwest plans to use its assigned seating flights to test a variety of boarding methods. As for flight 2444, it boarded smoothly -- the plane actually pulled back from the gate one minute early.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.